The mega-mayor faceoff

Anthony Wilson-Smith October 27 1997

The mega-mayor faceoff

Anthony Wilson-Smith October 27 1997

The mega-mayor faceoff


Isolated and unprepossessing, the industrial complex at 501 Passmore Rd. in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough seems far from the sort of place where politicians usually tread. On the opposite side of the street, farmland marks the end of Metropolitan Toronto. And at 5 o’clock one afternoon last week, almost all of the offices within the complex were deserted—closed for the day or, in many cases, shuttered for lack of tenants. All the more remarkable was the sight of City of Toronto Mayor Barbara Hall and two aides as they climbed out of a white sedan. Hall was there to tape a half-hour interview at a television studio for a Muslim-oriented program that was to air during the weekend on Vision TV, a specialty channel dedicated to religious and social issues. Said Hall, doing her best to look at ease in unfamiliar surroundings: “In so many ways, this is all about the new Toronto of tomorrow.”

And, in Hall’s case, who gets to lead it— and have the sometimes dubious pleasure of presiding over a large and potentially unruly 57-member council in which he, or she, will have only one vote. Until now, Scarborough and the City of Toronto—along with York, East York, North York and Etobicoke, which together make up Metropolitan Toronto—have been separate municipalities. But on Nov. 10, because of a municipal amalgamation reform that Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government has imposed on often reluctant municipalities, voters will go to the polls to choose the mayor of what will be, after Jan. 1, the unified megacity of Toronto. The winner will then be in charge of the largest urban jurisdiction in Canada, smaller than only three American cities (New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago). With 2.3 million inhabitants, Toronto will be the sixth-largest government in the country. Only the federal government and the provincial governments of Ontario, Quebec,

Who will lead the new Toronto?

British Columbia and Alberta will preside over more people. Although a total of 20 candidates are running, the victor is virtually certain to be either the 51-year-old Hall, or her flamboyant opponent, 64-year-old North York Mayor Mel Lastman. “A big city needs someone who can make big decisions,” Lastman says with the bluntness that has characterized his own 25-year term in office. “I can—clearly, Barbara Hall cannot.” It would be hard to think of an electoral race anywhere that has produced two more qualified candidates—and two more distinct opposites in so many ways. Political strategists often use the expression “symbols can mean more than substance”—and even the superficial differences between Hall and Lastman speak to that. Hall wears conservatively cut suits in muted colors and speaks in measured tones with frequent, lengthy pauses. Lastman favors ties with explosive designs, wears multicolored shirts, and punctuates his emotional, urgent manner of speech with expansive hand gestures. Hall, who at various times has worked as a parole officer and social worker, and once

was a candidate for the New Democratic Party, boasts about riding to work on her bicycle. Lastman, who once ran for the provincial Progressive Conservatives and made a fortune in his earlier career running a chain of appliance stores, takes pride in driving a luxury Mercedes 560 sedan.

Not surprisingly, the race is being portrayed in parts of the Toronto media—which in some cases have vigorously taken sides—as a drag-out fight between Lastman on behalf of the political right, and Hall for the left. Up to a point, that is true. A key part of Lastman’s platform is his promise to freeze municipal tax rates during his mandate. Hall, on the other hand, refuses to make a similar commitment because, she says, “it would not be responsible” to do so while Ontario Premier Mike Harris’s Tory government is in the process of downloading responsibility for some government services to the municipalities.

Hall’s speeches are peppered with references to the need for better treatment of the homeless and the city’s responsibility to take a leading role in establishing and maintaining social programs. Lastman insists that the most effective solution to Toronto’s social problems lies in a booming economy that would be spurred by lower taxes and a friendlier environment for business. Bolstered by focus groups showing that voters are likely to reject any candidate with links to Harris’s Tories, the Hall camp is to some degree emphasizing the leftright split between the candidates. “Mel Lastman,” says Hall bluntly, “will do anything that Mike Harris wants him to.”

But the characters of both candidates— and their respective stands on policy issues—are more complex than they initially appear to be. Toronto’s taxes have not risen since Hall became mayor and she describes her reluctance to commit to a continued freeze as “simply a necessary option given the uncertainty of a new administration.” Lastman, in turn, acknowledges that the reason the City of Toronto currently spends much more than North York on social services is that “there is a greater need because the downtown core attracts so many more homeless.” If he becomes mayor, Lastman concedes, “I recognize that I have to take those different circumstances into account in the way I govern.”

Similarly, the makeup of their campaign teams defies rightand left-wing descriptions. True, some of Lastman’s key campaign organizers are Tories (including co-chairman John Tory Jr., a longtime strategist for the federal party who is also chief executive officer of Rogers MultiMedia Inc., owners of Maclean’s).

But others include Liberal Senator Jerry Grafstein, campaign director and longtime federal Liberal organizer John Danson, key organizers with both the provincial Tories and Liberals, and a black community activist, Lennoxx Farrell who once ran against Lastman. The number of Liberals on Lastman’s side has, in fact, deeply annoyed longtime federal Liberal strategist Keith Davey, who is a key organizer for Hall.

“I can’t understand how any selfrespecting Liberal would work for a guy so tied in with the Tories,”

Davey grumbled last week.

Similarly, the makeup of Hall’s campaign organization belies her left-wing image. Although it features some organizers with NDP ties—such as Michael Lewis, brother of former provincial leader Stephen Lewis—the team also includes longtime Liberal organizer Gordon Ashworth, Tory campaign manager John Lashinger and prominent business leaders including Avie Bennett, the head of McClelland & Stewart publishers, and clothier Harry Rosen. In fact, one of the dominant themes of Hall’s campaign is the emphasis she says she has put on developing close ties with the city’s business community in order to attract and consolidate investment. “I cannot even begin to count the number of times I have called CEOs,” Hall says, “or begun my day with breakfast meetings with them in order to better understand their priorities.”

Lastman, as even many of his detractors concede, has been a hugely popular mayor whose populist reputation and boosterish manner evoke former New York mayor Ed Koch. First elected mayor of North York in 1972, Lastman has been re-elected nine times. Although Hall supporters brand him as insensitive and ignorant of the needs of an increasingly multicultural city, he grew up in Toronto in an East European Jewish im-

migrant family—at a time when Toronto was far more WASPish and less welcoming to other cultures. “Nobody,” says Lastman, “has to tell me what it is like to be an outsider.” He has, in fact, gone to great lengths to be accommodating to his constituents. For more than 10 years, he has appeared on a live weekly cable television show, fielding questions from callers about his municipal gov-

ernment. Alone among Toronto municipalities, North York has garbage collection twice a week—a “clean city,” says Lastman, “learns to take pride in itself.” North York’s muchtouted snow-removal teams have strict instructions never to pile snow on driveways. “Imagine,” says Lastman, “people in their 80s having to shovel snow the city put there.” Perhaps the most famous of Lastman’s commitments is his vow that anyone calling city hall will “always be greeted by a real voice in office hours, not voice mail.” Voice mail, he says, “is an evil invention because it encourages employees to pick and choose which calls they return.” And, despite Lastman’s reputation for claiming sole credit for

successful initiatives—a reputation that is at least partly true—he seldom talks about the fact that he is a relentless and indefatigable fund-raiser for youth organizations. One friend estimates he has given “literally hundreds of thousands of dollars” of his own money to such charitable causes.

In fact, neither candidate needs further proof of either drive or courage. Hall, who was born in Ottawa, worked as a parole officer in Cleveland in the 1970s and remembers getting off a bus one day to be greeted by a robber who stuck a revolver to her forehead. The experience shook her deeply but, she says, “gave me good cause for reflection. The simple response is to just never take a bus again. In my case, I decided the answer was to work to eradicate the conditions that make inner cities places of fear.”

After serving three terms as a City of Toronto councillor, she ran against incumbent mayor June Rowlands in 1994 and won in an upset victory. Today, Hall has a deserved reputation as a consensusbuilder who has worked hard to reach out to opponents. “She is a rare and compassionate human being, and she is able to infuse her politics with those qualities,” says Davey, who has worked on Hall’s last two campaigns. Of herself, Hall says, “I like to say I have the courage to change my mind—anytime I see new information that convinces me I should do so.”

In the end, says one political strategist familiar with both camps, the outcome is likely to be decided “not so much by right versus left, but by urban versus suburban.” If that is the case, Lastman is the clear favorite: the City of Toronto makes up barely more than a quarter of a eligible voters. And, strategists on both sides say, the preoccupations A of suburban voters—including Lastig man’s emphasis on the need to rein £ in taxes—work in his favor. Still, although a poll published in The Toronto Star on Oct. 10 gave Lastman a 30-point lead, many voters remain undecided—and both sides acknowledge that Lastman’s support is soft. And on one issue, at least, the two candidates sound remarkably similar. In a campaign that features no small amount of personal animosity, both candidates are happy to highlight their differences. “Everybody knows Mel,” says Lastman of himself, “and I’m happy that they decide based on that.” Says Hall: ‘You look at the two of us, and the differences could not be more profound. Let the decision be based on that.” To the victor goes the chance, and challenge, to prove that a united Toronto can be greater than the sum of its formerly divided parts. □